The Northern Premier League

22nd March 2022, Runcorn Linnets FC v Bootle : 3-1 Sponsored by In memory of Doreen Thompson

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

A balmy Tuesday night brought Bootle to the APEC Taxis Stadium, for probably the biggest game for Linnets in four years.

The winner would be in the driving seat to secure fifth position in the Pitching In Northern Premier West Division, and a place in the promotion play-offs.

Runcorn knew a win would give them an eight-point margin but three points for Bootle would leave them two points behind their hosts with a game in hand, and place their fate in their own hands.

Strong recent form for Linnets had been built on starting games on the front foot, and this one was no exception.

Joe Lynch started as he was to go on, picking up possession in the middle third and threatening the Bootle defence.

He was fouled outside the left corner of the penalty area, and from Iwan Murray's free-kick, Ryan Brooke made contact before Bootle's Will Bell. His header cleared the bar by inches.

After four minutes, Brooke played on to Murray, as he had done so often in recent games. Iwan steadied himself and shot wide, taking a clear deflection off Bell that the well-placed referee failed to see or hear, as he awarded a goal-kick.

Soon Brooke was being brought down 35 yards out, and the free-kick was delivered to James Short, wide on the left. His cross was intercepted by a diving punch from 'keeper Theo Roberts.

After an enterprising opening from the home side, Bootle steadied the ship and embarked on a period of possession, involving eight or more lateral passes across the Runcorn third.

But the Linnets backline denied them a way through, as they were to do for most of the evening, and Iwan Murray eventually cleared.

In the ninth minute, Joe Lynch set Lloyd Marsh-Hughes away on a run towards the Bootle area.

He was outnumbered and dispossessed 20 yards from goal, with Brooke out to his right calling for the ball.

Runcorn pressure continued, with the help of a hefty Bootle backpass skidding out for a corner.

Alex Downes headed the ball back into the middle from beyond the left post, where Jay McCarten got to it before Ryan Brooke. Ally Brown crossed back into the area, where Downes' head made contact again, but Roberts held on.

Bootle advanced, but Sean O'Mahony headed out for Joe Lynch to take charge again. He ran right and played a diagional ball through the area, but it was too hot for Brooke's run.

On 14 minutes, Ally Brown progressed up the right and passed inside to Lynch, who played a great ball into space for Marsh-Hughes, but Lloyd was a yard offside.This might read like an uninterrupted Runcorn onslaught, but in truth, Bootle were spending more time on the ball.

The difference was that Brown, Doyle, Downes, O'Mahony and Short, augmented by Welsh and Murray, were forming an impregnable barrier that limited the men in white to sideways passing moves that failed to carve a route to goal.

And when Linnets came forward, they did so fast, and looking more likely to breach the opposition.

A great flicked header by Brooke on to Marsh-Hughes was returned into the middle, where the 'keeper got there just before the Linnets No9.

The game was only 18 hectic minutes old, when Joe Lynch was fouled 40 yards from goal. Murray's free-kick found Brown wide right, and he crossed for Downes to head back into the area.

Theo Roberts fumbled in an aerial challenge with Marsh-Hughes, and the ball looped towards the left post, where Ryan Brooke had the easiest of headers from a foot out, to put Linnets ahead.

The home fans had barely finished celebrating when the score was levelled, from another tap-in, and from another goalkeeping error.

A loose ball was played up the left to Connor Millington, who launched a ball into the Runcorn penalty area.

Tom Peterson's low shot was stopped at ground level by Owen Mooney, but he couldn't hold on to the ball, and Peterson followed up with ease to make it 1-1.

Two minutes later, Peterson might have made it 2-1. But given enough space in the middle to get in a shot, he fired wide left.

Linnets weren't fazed, and they regrouped to keep the doors closed at the back, and launch attacks from balls won in their own third of the pitch.

Alex Downes started to relish the role of midfield provider, moving up to halfway with the ball and seeking out Lynch, Murray, Brooke and Marsh-Hughes to attack on the break.

On 28 minutes, Downes' through ball to Marsh-Hughes set up a curling shot that cleared the top right angle by not much.

From the goal-kick, O'Mahony headed the ball down. Lynch passed wide right to Ally Brown, who made ten yards to whip a cross through the penalty area.

Brooke met it perfectly for a first time delivery inside the left post, to regain the lead with his 22nd league goal of the season.

It put him two ahead of prolific Bootle scorer Ben Hodkinson.

Five minutes followed in which Bootle maintained possession, but it was still side to side, with every attempt to break towards goal thwarted by clinical defending.

Shots were reduced to speculative efforts which ran wide, or lacked the power to trouble Owen Mooney.

When Runcorn broke away, Joe Lynch was involved almost every time, drawing two or three opponents and opening up space. He found Jacques Welsh wide on the left, his cross reaching Brooke in the middle, for a curling shot which flew a yard high of the top left corner.

In the next two minutes, Brooke, Welsh and Short all jockeyed for a shooting opportunity from the left, Jacques Welsh finally pulling a snap shot wide of the goal.

Then a great Short cross found the head of Brooke, but it spun high, and Roberts held on.

Five minutes before the break, a speculative shot from distance by Declan McLoughlin, which was Bootle's first for some time, carried straight into the arms of Mooney.

An action-packed first half, with much at stake, had been admirably clean, but the first yellow card of the night came two minutes before the break.

Ryan Brooke pulled down Mooney's clearance in the centre circle, and flicked it on for Murray, who was flattened by a late challenge by Michael Carberry.

Just before the break, Lynch was fouled 25 yards from goal. Murray's dipping free-kick slammed off the foot of the left post, and former Linnet Jay Roberts conceded a corner from the rebound.

Murray's kick found the inevitable Joe Lynch at the far corner of the area, his shot sweeping across goal and narrowly wide of the post.

Runcorn were well worth their 2-1 lead at half-time, having had less than half of the possession, but looking far more dangerous on the attack.

Straight from the restart,Iwan Murray strode forward and passed to Ryan Brooke, who drilled a shot two feet wide of the right post.

The second half proceeded much like the first, with Bootle taking possession, but being limited to passing from side to side, by a solid Linnets rearguard.

They tried to break through up either wing, but full-backs Brown and Short either prevented crosses, or restricted their precision.

The half was six minutes old when the first bout of indiscipline kicked in. Iwan Murray took possession in the centre circle, from O'Mahony's clearance, and was brought down by Jay McCarten.

Iwan kicked out at him from the ground, provoking an angry reaction and sparking a fracas that ultimately resulted in yellow cards for Murray, McCarten and Jordan Wynne.

Referee Abid Hussein did well to calm the mayhem, and to prevent a previously fierce but fair contest turning into a bad-tempered brawl.

After order was restored, Bootle continued to have the lion's share of possession, and Linnets remained resilient in defence, with midfield personnel sitting deep to help keep the doors closed.

Attacks on the break became less frequent than they had been before half-time.

Manager Calum McIntyre later said that James Short probably shouldn't have started the game, his left calf being strapped for the warm-up.

After a coming together on his own goal line after 62 minutes, he was forced to give way to club captain Peter Wylie.

A patient occupant of the bench in recent weeks, Peter took over both the left-back berth and the skipper's armband.

A scrappy ten minutes for both sides saw precious few chances, Linnets most promising effort involving a Brooke-Murray-Lynch combination across the pitch which failed to find a way through.

A new source of penetration was sought after 68 minutes, with Dapo Olarewaju replacing Lloyd Marsh-Hughes, and Bootle made all three of their substitutions in the following three minutes. Matty McDonald, Liam Loughlin and Jack McGowan came on for Morgan Homson-Smith, Jordan Wynne and Declan McLoughlin.

The changes in personnel didn't do much to quickly transform a stodgy period of play, and a few niggly fouls kept it scrappy.

Dapo made his presence felt for the first time, but not the last, with a trademark solo run from the right, across the front of the area. But he was bustled off his stride by Bell, and his shot skewed wide.

Two Bootle attacks, one from either wing, resulted in shots across the area that carried well wide.

A 35-yard Runcorn free-kick, from a foul on Murray that earned Will Bell a fourth Bootle yellow card, was held by Roberts, after an aerial contest between McCarten and Brooke.

Entering the last ten minutes, Joe Lynch reinforced his man-of-the-match status with a run that involved shrugging off half a dozen attempted tackles, before passing right to Brooke.

He aimed a neat flick over the defence that was a yard too quick for Olarewaju to get there before the 'keeper.

Dapo was then in a race for the ball with McCarten towards the Bootle area, and appeared to be fouled, but Mr Hussein thought not.

With four minutes to go, the last substitution of the evening saw Iwan Murray replaced by Louis Hayes, presumably to add some fresh muscle to the collective defensive effort.

But Bootle were spending less time in the Runcorn half anyway, chiefly due to the endeavours of Lynch and Welsh to provide ammunition for Dapo.

He continued to be a thorn in the side of the Bootle rearguard, and after outstripping Jay Roberts up the left, he shot powerfully to draw a good save from Jay's namesake - Theo conceding a corner.

Lynch's long kick was picked up by Downes on the far side, where he won a throw in.

Dapo took the ball to the right corner flag, where he was fouled. The free-kick into the middle of the area was contested by three heads, the ball flying vertically before being cleared.

The game was passing into added time, but we didn't know how much, because Sam Phillips' announcements were being drowned out by the crowd behind the clubhouse goal.

A dangerous McGowan cross into the Linnets area was punched over the bar by Owen Mooney under pressure, but the referee ruled that he had been fouled anyway.

With three added minutes played, which were accounted for by six substitutions, there couldn't be long to go.

The Runcorn fans were howling for Mr Hussein to blow the whistle on a crucial 2-1 win for their team, but Dapo Olarewaju had other ideas.

He zig-zagged at speed through the oppositionhalf, turning three men in white on the way, entered the left side of the area past Jay Roberts, took one step back towards goal, and hammered an unstoppable shot into the Bootle net.

Dapo's 'supersub' finish earned him a deafening blend of jubilation and relief from the fans, as well as a yellow card for removing his shirt, to show that he too was really quite pleased.

The 3-1 win was thoroughly deserved, not just for a determined attacking display withJoe Lynch in the engine room, but also for a team performance in defence. This frustrated a side who had needed a victory to keep the race for a play-off place on course.

The first of Linnets'six remaining league fixtures will be the visit of already-relegated Market Drayton Town, on Saturday, March 26th.

Stalwart fan Ian Knowles has called it a banana skin, or as Alan Hansen once said, a 'potato skin'.

Runcorn Linnets: Owen Mooney, Ally Brown, James Short (Peter Wylie 62), Lewis Doyle, Alex Downes, Sean O'Mahony, Joe Lynch, Jacques Welsh, Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray (Louis Hayes 86), Lloyd Marsh-Hughes (Dapo Olarewaju 68). Subs not used: Scott Reed, Eden Gumbs.

Attendance: 730.

NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.

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